The Washington State caucuses are now under way, having begun at 1PM Eastern. Around the state, anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 are expected to gather and participate in the non-binding straw poll, similar to the "beauty contest" in Missouri last month.
Washington will award 40 delegates total, but not as a result of today's gatherings; instead, state and county conventions, held in late May and late March, respectively, will grant the delegates. This is not to say Washington has no value, however; Super Tuesday is just around the corner, after all. Today, optics are at stake.
And coming out of a contentious week for both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, taking control of the narrative is crucial. Romney squeaked by in his home state, leaving many questioning his claim to be the most electable, while Santorum faced a rather embarrassing rebuke to his claim to have "beat" Romney in Michigan, when his rival came away with one extra delegate after-the-fact. Indeed, it's hard to say who, exactly, is the frontrunner heading into Super Tuesday.
However, it's also nearly impossible to tell who's the definitive frontrunner in Washington. There's very little polling to be found, given the difficulty of identifying likely caucus participants, and only one agency has really tried. PPP provides a best-guess estimate of the climate, and the numbers are erratic: mid-February, the contest was going Santorum's way by 11 points, but now, two weeks later, it seems Romney has the lead, by five.
The wild swings in polling belie an electorate that would seem to favor Romney:
As a western state with a relatively high percentage of moderate Republicans and likely caucus-goers who share Romney’s Mormon faith, Washington carries several calling cards that suggest it is his territory.
The former Massachusetts governor visited the state on Friday, appearing alongside former state senator and perennial statewide Republican candidate Dino Rossi, but neither his campaign nor his super PAC, Restore Our Future, has advertised in Washington, an indication that such an expenditure is not a top priority for the campaign.
Romney and his surrogates have also been leading a get out the vote effort, traveling around the state and providing "caucus lessons." It seems silly, but it may pay off; in the past, Washington has conducted both a caucus and a primary, with the latter garnering a much bigger crowd. Due to a lower budget, however, the state legislature cut the primary, and many don't actually know how to caucus. Thus, Romney's visits have been valuable; his supporters may be more likely to attend now that they know what to do.
However, this is not to say that Romney has the affair locked up tight. Indeed, the only candidate that has spent a significant amount of time or money in Washinton is Ron Paul, whose campaign is also the only one airing ads in the state. Thanks to his broad presence, he's slated to perform relatively well:
Paul made three stops in the state on Thursday, including Spokane (which he carried four years ago) and an evening rally in Seattle. In the last week, he's put an undisclosed sum behind a 60-second advertisement on Fox News and some broadcast outlets in state that argues all three of his rivals are basically the same.
Paul will visit caucus sites Saturday morning and spend election night in Seattle, while Romney and Santorum will be in Ohio.
Paul's national campaign chairman, Jesse Benton, wouldn't predict a win for the Texas congressman in Washington's caucuses, insisting that the campaign cares more about amassing the most delegates at the state convention in June.
"We'll do well in the beauty contest. I honestly don't know that we're going to win," he said. "Our people are going in very motivated and very trained to become delegates and go all the way through."
Paul and Romney have had the most by way of a presence in the state, but Rick Santorum is still likely to perform well, thanks to a staunch conservative base in the southwest. Indeed, one of PPP's lead analysts thinks Santorum has a chance to come out on top:
Two weeks ago, the Democratic firm’s automated polling had Santorum up 11. Romney’s base comes from Mormons, seniors, men and moderates. Santorum’s up with evangelicals, tea partiers and those who identify themselves as very conservative.
Pollster Tom Jensen included strong caveats about his numbers in an analysis that accompanied the numbers.
“There is still some hope for Santorum,” he wrote. “Caucuses are unusually difficult to poll and although our polling of the ones in Colorado and Minnesota last month picked up that Santorum had momentum in the race, they didn’t gauge the full extent of it… Among voters who say they will ‘definitely’ caucus on Saturday Romney’s advantage is only 35-32. His overall advantage is larger because he’s up 40-30 with those who will ‘probably’ caucus, but those folks may or may not end up showing.”
So there you have it: it's a fickle state to predict, and no delegates are at stake, but the caucus's proximity to Super Tuesday lends it some weight. He who wins will have the wind at his back entering this week.
We'll have results posted live as they start to come in, around 6PM Eastern. Keep checking back to see who will win this surprisingly important non-binding contest!